'We haven't settled on a fee,' says B.C. premier as backlash against charging for information grows
B.C. Premier John Horgan seems to be backing away from a steep $25 fee proposed for Freedom of Information requests, while doubling down on controversial legislative changes that would make charging for disclosure possible.
On Wednesday, Journalism professors from the University of British Columbia, BCIT, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langara College and Thompson Rivers University issued a letter warning a $25 fee would be among the highest in the country. Addressed to the minister responsible, Lisa Beare, the letter argues the fee would be "a step backward for government transparency and openness."
Hamish Telford, associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, also echoed concerns from the privacy commissioner that some of the changes the government has proposed to the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act are a step in the wrong direction.
"If people thought the system was broken, it would be on the side that it was too difficult to access information – and the government is bringing in an act to make it even more difficult now," Telford told CTV News.
When asked about the changes at a weekly news conference Wednesday, Horgan distanced himself from the suggested size of the charge.
"We haven't settled on a fee. The bill allows a fee to be set by regulation," he explained.
The $25 figure came from the minister responsible this week. On Tuesday, Beare, who has the citizen services file, said, "other jurisdictions have a fee between $5 and $50, I'm recommending a number right in the middle of that."
In opposition, Horgan regularly used information from documents received through Freedom of Information requests to hold government to account. On Thursday, he reiterated the province's justification for paving the way for a financial disincentive.
"I believe thousands and thousands of requests aren't about finding out how decisions are made, they're about surveillance," Horgan said.
The province said it processes more than 10,000 FOI requests per year, and that the volume increased to an all-time high of 13,055 in 2019-20. Horgan blamed much of the spike on the BC Liberals.
One request even asked for a screenshot of his computer, prompting a cheeky response from the premier in which he showed his cellphone screen to reporters.
Telford thinks while the bill may be short-sighted, the NDP probably won't drop it.
"I'm guessing they'll dig their heels in and push this through, and then come to regret it sometime in the future when they're in the opposition," he said.